months in Switzerland, 1967
The short flight
from Pôrto Alegre to Buenos
Aires was crowded that evening. We usually tried to occupy a whole
row, six abreast, in the old 737s, but this time we were scattered over
the few remaining aisle seats. Buenos Aires was cold and cloudy, like
my mood after the all-too short visit to my parents. We visited the zoo
(we got to know the zoos of at least ten different countries), walked
around the old Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, and broke the toilet in
the ancient hotel. Let me explain: the toilet tank leaked. Robert, endowed
with nerves tight as an E-string, couldn’t have a moment’s
peace with the constant sound of running water, so he lifted off the porcelain
lid to, hopefully, fix the leak. But, instead, he dropped the lid on the
tile floor—not the first time we destroyed something to save it.
We got away before the cleaning staff arrived next morning.
Two days in Monrovia,
the capital of Liberia, broke up the long flight to Europe and also took
us back two hundred
years of human
development. We thought Colombia was backward, but this was the real Third
World. The clerk at the Pan Am counter handed us a voucher for a night’s
lodging, even though the stop was our choice. We didn’t argue; a
free night is a free night. Perhaps we would have gotten two nights courtesy
of the airline, if we had complained. Arriving at the hotel, late at night
with four cranky children in tow, a clerk herded us into a room with one
large double bed. As they say about the US and England, we are divided
by a common language. The official language of Liberia is English, but
it took many exasperated gestures to get the message across to the blank-faced
employee: we needed cots for four children in addition to the
|Colegiata de San Isidro, Madrid
Next day we wandered
the dirt streets of downtown Monrovia. The merchants were primarily transplanted
Indians; the locals loitered about smoking and drinking. I understand
the natives resented the Indians for “taking away” opportunities,
when in fact they were probably the only ones willing to work. At the
hotel we bought eight 5¢ postcards. The clerk added eight fives by
counting on his fingers.
Pan Am next took
us over the east coast of Africa to Madrid.
Robert had lectured me on proper garb—no pants for women, this is
a traditional Catholic country. I planned on wearing the only skirt I'd
packed. But I needn’t worry. Richard came down with a 103º
fever, and I spent next day at his bedside. All I saw of Madrid was the
expanse of red tile roofs from our hotel window.
Switzerland felt like home at last. By now we had spent a whole year in
countries where food and water could not be trusted. Now we could drink
the water and eat the salads. Elizabeth had flown into Geneva ahead of
us and haggled for a special rate at a small, family style hotel, dangling
the prospect of our lodging there for a minimum of two weeks. But a fully
furnished farm house in Commugny, on the road to Lyon, became available
for rent by the month, and Robert jumped on it. We took off after four
nights. The woman who owned the place made very obvious her contempt for
the chintzy Americans.
Carol, Richard. Villa le Sapin, Summer 1967
We enjoyed a wonderful summer in
a plain, rustic, old Swiss farm house looking out on an expanse of countryside.
It was called Villa le Sapin, after the hundred-foot fir tree that provided
shade out back. Cows grazed close to the back door, separated from us
by a barbed wire fence. The kids played in the fields and used a trough
as swimming hole. The photo below was taken on a drive into the woods
for a picnic. We marveled at Swiss picnickers eating by the side of the
road, at a table complete with white tablecloth, crystal glasses, and
bottle of wine.
with Eric, Geneva woods, 1967
Elizabeth spent three weeks with us before flying back to the US. She
was responsible for the famous salty applesauce. After a morning of peeling
and quartering apples fresh off the tree, with kids watching and helping—mostly
watching—a couple of large panfuls of applesauce were ready for
canning. Unfortunately, Elizabeth didn’t know any French, and she
sweetened it with several cupfuls of “sel.” To throw it all
out was pure heartbreak.
(Monica) in Commugny, Carol by Lake Geneva
That was a summer of endless thunderstorms.
One afternoon, Robert and Elizabeth had taken the kids downtown while
I stayed behind for some peace and quiet as clouds gathered for the show.
Alone in the house, I found myself right in the heart of an electrical
storm I’ll never forget. Thunderbolts came ever closer—how
close can they get?—until lightning struck the tallest object
around, our sapin tree outside the back door, with a mighty crack. My
hair stood on end as electricity tripped several circuit breakers on its
way through the house and my body. The cattle out back had gathered under
the tree for shelter, a rather poor choice but I guess they didn't know,
they were cows, not know for brilliance. Their gut was affected by either
fear or electricity or both, and I watched openmouthed as in unison they
emptied their bowels in a concerto of splats.
le Sapin, Summer 1967 (photos by Elizabeth Wesson)
Geneva lived up to its reputation as the most beautiful, quaint and orderly
country of Europe. The children guzzled fresh milk, packaged in soft plastic
pyramids. There’s milk, and then there's Swiss milk. We drove by
CERN, the world’s most advanced nuclear accelerator at that time.
As fall approached, along with the beginning of the school year, we looked
for another house closer to the American school, to the consternation
of the owners of Villa le Sapin, due to be away for another few months.
They really wanted us to stay, and we left with regret. Our new address
was the remodeled servants’ quarters of a huge old house on several
acres, Villa les Bessards.
age 3, Villa les Bessards
I got a taste of the irritating Swiss passion for order and control when
we did a walk-through with the landlord, prior to moving in. He had us
sign an inventory of everything that wasn't floor or walls, including
plastic spoons abandoned in a drawer by the previous tenants. He called
them “cuillères de fantaisie.”
As a child, my images of sparkling Switzerland had come from a stereoscope,
those picture disks you insert in a viewer—I believe they still
exist. Unfortunately, Father could never find disks for it, other than
the three that came with the package. One disk featured Switzerland, including
views of the 10,000-foot Jungfrau, and I spent many an idle hour peering
through the stereoscope at the snow-covered mountain and making up stories
about the people playing in the snow. Now was my chance to get to see
it. I pestered Robert until he arranged a trip. We spent a weekend doing
the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Bernese
Oberland by rail, including the unforgettable cog railway straight
up the Jungfrau. It was uncanny to walk on the very same spot that I had
so dreamed about, a view from the restaurant deck atop the Jungfrau.
Mont Blanc tunnel exit in Italy, Carol in Courmayeur
We took another, shorter trip by car to Chamonix and Courmayeur. Europe
is great for how small it is. In one day’s drive, one can cross
several national boundaries with different languages and currencies. The
tunnel from France to Italy under Mont Blanc is a seven-mile straight
line in the darkness. I began to hallucinate that I saw the end of the
tunnel when we still had several miles to go. The tunnel builders (must
have been the Swiss) measured so accurately, in those days before lasers,
that they had met neatly in the middle. We walked around in the snow before
heading back. Robert left his wallet at the customs checkpoint in Italy.
We had given up on ever getting it back, but it came back in the mail,
the cash untouched.
We nearly burned down Villa les Bessards. Our three rooms and den were
heated by a coal-fired furnace in the basement. We figured we could save
coal by using the fireplace in the den, and besides, it was fun and challenging
to get hard coal to burn. Once it got going, a small pile burned hot and
cozy (too hot, it turned out) and warmed up the whole house. One day I
smelled smoke. The wood structure behind the fireplace, we found out,
was smoldering, the smoke hanging in sheets in the upstairs apartment.
The firemen, summoned by the landlord, viciously attacked our dwelling
with their axes, repeating like a mantra, c’est assuré,
it is insured. We lost the use of that room for the rest of our stay,
as snow came in through the hole where the fireplace had been. Never tell
firemen your place is insured. And never rent to the Wessons of California.
soaks up autumn sun at Villa les Bessards
The three older children attended the American school until winter, and
with winter came the end of our six months in Geneva. We would fly back
to the States in time for the winter quarter at UCSB, but not before stopping
off in Prague, West Berlin, Copenhagen, Malmö in Sweden, and again
Copenhagen for our flight home.
We caused a small commotion as we arrived in Prague, a caravan of two
adults, four children and several duffel bags. The customs clerk shook
his head in disbelief. I think Czech families with small kids simply stayed
put. But the ancient city of Prague
offered great shopping, history etched on stone buildings pocked with
bullet holes, and grim Soviet military on R&R milling about. From
Prague we flew to West Berlin, the glitzy showcase of the West. It wasn't
just glitz and brilliantly-lit shop windows that made the place magical
for me—I will never forget the bells that rang every hour to herald
Christmas, and the burned-out Gedächtniskirche
(Memorial Church) standing watch over Kurfürstendamm
traffic. We promised to visit again.
We spent Christmas
'67 in a hotel room in Copenhagen.
We had warned the kids that all this travel was their Christmas, so no
presents, but they shamed us with gifts they had crafted in school.
The city was almost devoid of daylight in this darkest time of the year,
the streets coated in muddy slush. The tantalizing, inexpensive goods
in store windows were out of reach, because we ended up spending two holiday
weekends there and businesses were locked tight. In between, we took the
airfoil boat to Malmö for a couple of days. Sweden was just then
changing over to right-hand driving, and all the street corners were pasted
with signs to look left before crossing.
I could have made a few bucks as a streetwalker in Malmö, like, I
guess, many a Swedish freelancing housewife. I had walked out alone at
dusk to buy food for our dinner in the room (we ate in the room a lot).
A slow moving car pulled to a stop next to where I was waiting to cross
the street. In a traveling frame of mind, I naively thought, this guy
must be looking for an address. So I came up to the car window and said,
“Sorry, I’m new here and I don’t speak Swedish.”
The red-faced man with bulbous nose and greasy hair reached over, opened
the door, and motioned to the seat, a broad smile lighting up his face:
“No problem, I speak English.” I got back to the hotel in
a hurry. I needed to throw up.
We flew back to California on New Years Day, 1968, more than ready for
sunshine and warmth. Our flight took us over the North Pole to Seattle
in nine hours, to go through customs and passport control before flying
to LAX and home. Immigration was especially displeased at my stop behind
the Iron Curtain. As a Brazilian citizen, who knows what sabotage I might
have planned with the Czechs. Customs grudgingly let me through to join
my five decoys. We missed the last flight to Santa Barbara and spent the
longest night of our lives sprawled all over the plastic seats of the
terminal. But, back home at last, I couldn’t get enough of the perfumed
California night and the chirping outside the window. Crickets in January!
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